Generals versus Rumsfeld

ANDREW J. BACEVICH is professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."

THE ENDGAME of America’s misbegotten crusade in Iraq may be nowhere in sight, but the search for scapegoats has begun in earnest. Who shall bear primary responsibility for this shipwreck, the civilian officials who conceived the war or the generals charged with waging it? After three years during which no one paid much attention to matters of accountability, those questions are now assuming a sudden urgency.

In recent days, one retired general after another has declared his views, hurling accusations of recklessness, bad judgment and bad faith at the Pentagon’s senior civilian leadership. Gens. Anthony Zinni, Greg Newbold, John Riggs, John Batiste, Paul Eaton and Charles Swannack -- the latter three of whom are Iraq war veterans -- have singled out Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for particular abuse and are demanding that he be sacked.

Yet even if the charges leveled against the defense secretary have merit, framing the issue as one of stalwart warriors versus meddling politicos is dishonest and deceptive. When Swannack, for example, blames Rumsfeld for Abu Ghraib, he gives up the game: By pointing fingers at Rumsfeld, the generals hope to deflect attention from the military’s own egregious mistakes.


In one sense, the unedifying spectacle of disenchanted generals publicly attacking their erstwhile boss does serve a useful purpose. It reveals the dirty little secret that the Pentagon has attempted to conceal ever since Vietnam: At the upper echelons of the national security establishment, relations between soldiers and civilians are mired in dysfunction.

A relationship that requires candor and mutual respect is instead based on mistrust and manipulation. The rituals of deference and warm regard displayed at news conferences or on ceremonial occasions can no longer conceal this reality.

An effective partnership between the brass and their civilian masters implies balance. When it comes to conducting the fight, politicians ought to allow their generals a certain autonomy. When it comes to defining a war’s purpose and establishing its parameters, the generals must recognize that the authority of the politicians is supreme.

Since the day he took command of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has been using his famous “8,000-mile screwdriver” to tilt the civil-military balance his way. According to his critics, he is Robert McNamara reborn -- an arrogant micromanager, contemptuous of soldierly expertise and certain of his own infallibility.

Especially telling, in their eyes, was Rumsfeld’s treatment of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s chief of staff, who before the Iraq invasion warned that the occupation was likely to pose large challenges. Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz immediately retaliated. For speaking unwelcome truths, Shinseki found himself pilloried, humiliated and marginalized. In the eyes of his fellow generals, Shinseki became a martyr.

BUT IN THEIR eagerness to settle scores, Rumsfeld’s pursuers are flirting with ideas that can only be regarded as subversive. Newbold, for one, has resurrected the notion that a senior officer’s primary obligation lies not to those atop the chain of command but to the Constitution.


This theory last surfaced during the Korean War, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly derided the proposition that soldiers “owe primary allegiance and loyalty to those who temporarily exercise the authority of the executive branch.” In citing a higher allegiance, MacArthur was attempting to justify the flagrant insubordination that had cost him his job. Wrong in 1951, MacArthur’s theory is equally wrong today. To grant even the most narrowly drawn exceptions to the principle of civilian control is to open up a Pandora’s box of complications.

In the short term, instigating Rumsfeld’s ouster might secure him top billing in the list of bunglers who screwed up the Iraq war. In the long term, it would only exacerbate the underlying problem. Unless and until we can restore some semblance of civilian-military effectiveness, defective policies will be the norm rather than the exception. This -- not the sins of Donald Rumsfeld -- is the nub of the matter.

The issue is one that ought to be addressed in the political realm. Indeed, it cries out for serious and sustained legislative attention. In past conflicts, Congress has established joint committees to evaluate the war’s conduct. Such an investigation of the Iraq war is long overdue.

If the manifestly anemic Congress cannot rouse itself to undertake such a task, it might create a commission like the one that investigated the events of 9/11, charging it with assessing the civilian-military dissonance that has hampered the war’s planning and execution. Today’s dissident generals could testify before such a commission, making their case against Rumsfeld but also accounting for the military’s performance.

In the meantime, they can best serve their country by heeding the example set by the martyred Shinseki. Since his departure from active duty, Shinseki has kept his own counsel. He has not joined the pack of those hounding Rumsfeld. His silence is a rebuke more telling than any words that he might speak. And it offers a model of true military professionalism as well.